Welcome back to The Gatekeepers, a feature in which we roam the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Greg Topel [Photo: Grace Boyle]
The Mediterranean Restaurant — known as The Med — has been a Boulder institution for 19 years, and it remains one of the most high-volume restaurants in the area. Director of operations Greg Topel has worked for Peggy Romano’s Walnut Restaurant Group (The Med, Brasserie Ten Ten) for 14 years, working his way up from serving/bartending at The Med to GM of Brasserie Ten Ten. Two years ago, after successfully managing Brasserie Ten Ten, Topel returned to The Med as director of operations. Eater sat down with Topel to discuss the ins and outs of scoring a table during peak hours and how he handles the rush, including instances of service gone wrong. Here now, Eater's interview with Topel.
What's the busiest night at The Med? Classically, Friday. The thing about Friday is that we have a busy lunch, a crazy happy hour and a busy dinner. As you noticed, we’re busy all the time. It’s never boring. But yes, if you’re looking for the single busiest night, it will be Friday top to bottom.
Since you take reservations, how far in advance does a group need to book a reservation for a weekend night? It depends on the size of the party. If you’re an 8-top, or even an 12-top, the good thing with the size of this restaurant is that we can usually accommodate — even potentially the day of. Although, I don’t think I would recommend that. To be safe, I would say at least 3-4 days out. If you’re part of a group that’s 20, 40, 60, 80 people, which again, we have the luxury of being able to do because of the size of this restaurant, I would say you should book a month out.
On a weekend, what’s an average wait time? It depends on the time of the day. If you get here at 4 p.m., you can probably stroll in for a table. But 5:00-5:30 p.m., you’re probably looking at 45 minutes to an hour. That wait lasts probably until 8:30 or 9 at night.
Tell us about your regulars. We are very fortunate that Boulder is a tourist community — there are a lot of people that come through here, but as far as what makes this place what it is — it's the regular guests. We have a multitude of people who eat here 4-7 times a week. They usually congregate in the bar areas and on the patio — they’re the backbone of our restaurant.
How many people are on staff here? We’ve got just over 140 people on staff here. We have 75 servers and 15 bartenders, and the rest is made up with personnel and back of the house staff. That number decreases quite a bit in the winter, when we lose a third of our restaurant, from the outside patio.
Wow. How many seats are on that patio? Just over 100.
In the last two years, you added the new addition to the restaurant. How has that helped business? It is spectacular. The thing about a 19-year-old restaurant is we have to constantly reinvent ourselves and constantly get better and better. I will tell you that this [new addition] has been a great resurgence for us.
The Med consistently wins Best of Boulder awards. What's the secret to winning year after year?
It's a simple formula — it’s an energetic, incredibly vibrant place to eat. The food is always consistently fantastic and the service is also consistently fantastic. There’s a value element too — we serve great food at a great price. Boulder appreciates that. It is a place with tons of disposable income and affluent individuals, but those individuals like to have value. We like to provide that for them.
You have one of the biggest menus in Boulder. What's been most popular over the years?
Tapas. No question about it. The small plates. That concept is all the rage, but these guys deserve the credit for bringing it to Boulder and just mastering it.
When faced with disgruntled customers and long waits, how do you like to deal with it? The cornerstone of The Walnut Restaurant Group is customer service. It’s how you’re treated from the moment you walk in, to the moment you leave. Of course we will never mess up [he laughs], but if, per se, we did, then it’s our intention to turn every step like that into an opportunity. If we did overcook your filet, we’re going to make it our point to go above and beyond and remedy that situation.
Do you have a disaster story turned into service magic? The one that we throw out to most incoming trainees states the level we would like them to go as servers here: About 8 years ago, we had a situation where a woman was here on a blind date, wearing a beautiful canary yellow outfit and one of our bussers spilled a glass of wine all over her. She was devastated. Since it was a blind date, she had arrived early and she had a few minutes to spare, so we sent one of our hostesses with a blank check out to Pearl Street Mall and got her outfitted top to bottom. She came back in time (almost in time, he was waiting a few minutes) but she made the entrance decked out the way she wanted to be. That’s not going to be something where we buy you dessert because we spilled wine on you, we’re going to actually make right what we made wrong.
This Interview was conducted by Grace Boyle, Eater Denver's Boulder correspondent.
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